Confessions of a Postdoc (17): Dealing with Stress - The Unavoidable Consequence of Life

(March 28th, 2014) Since 2010, Anjana Nityanandam has shared her inner thoughts, experiences and feelings that come with being a postdoc. Here are her latest insights into the world of a research scientist that many are probably all too familiar with.

If you browse the web, you will find hundreds of articles on how to battle stress, how to deal with it and how not to let it get to you. In this day and age, everyone’s leading a stressful life. If you are a researcher in academia, you are worrying about money, job security, funding for your job, your publication record, your next job, raising a family or finding the financial security to raise a family, and other personal issues… The unpredictability of research itself only makes matters worse. Is it possible that life for everyone is harder these days than when I was younger? A lot of stress comes from expectations which are certainly higher now. From parents, teachers, your peers, society... We are expected to achieve a certain level of professional success, and raise a family by the turn of our third decade on the planet. If you think about it, from the day we are born, we are loaded with expectations. Even more if you unwittingly display some kind of skill/talent as a kid. Before you know what’s happening, you are thrown into a life where you are constantly trying to live up to the expectations of others, especially because you have all that potential and you showed all that promise. With expectations come disappointments. With disappointments comes struggle. And where there is struggle, there is stress.

So how does one tackle this problem? While some would recommend stress busters, I say there is a philosophical way out. Two things are absolutely essential to get through life - firstly, the ability to let go and move on; secondly, to have a sense of humour. You’ve got to be able to laugh at what life brings along, disappointments and failures included. And you’ve got to know when and how to let go - whether personal or professional. For instance, when you are stuck in a project that just isn’t working no matter how many different approaches you have tried. Logic dictates that one should give up on that project and do something else, maybe related, but different. But I think in academic research we are trained to keep working on a problem until we figure it out. Is that prudent? If not, how do you know when to stop trying and move on?

A friend of mine says what helps him combat stress is occasionally gazing up at the night sky and feeling inconsequential. He finds comfort and solace in astronomy. In the larger scheme of things, we are nothing but a speck of dust. Not to say that our life means nothing. But that if things don’t work out the way we want to it doesn’t really matter because life will still go on, and the universe will continue to exist. The world is not going to stop functioning because you had a bad day, week or even a year. I am not sure how comforting this thought is but I guess it helps not to take yourself or life too seriously.

It is imperative that one learns how to deal with stress, especially in an uncertain, unpredictable job like ours… The list of diseases, stress is supposedly a risk factor for, is growing each month! Lately, I find myself wondering how did my life come to be this worrisome? How did I get from always being the class valedictorian to being constantly insecure about the future? How did I get from always being the teacher’s favourite to frantically seeking recognition and appreciation for my efforts? Some say the key to tackling stress is focusing on the positives, and being grateful for them. I say the key is a decent dose of prime time television before going to bed! For that one (maybe two) hour(s) at the end of each day, I need the luxury to forget everything going on in my life…. Psychologists and life-coaches advice one to never go to bed stressed. Go to bed with ‘happy’ thoughts, they say…. Did I hear you say easier said than done?

Mental health is as important as physical well-being, if not more. I agree with my friend who says just as you would invest time, money and effort into building and maintaining your physical fitness, it is equally important to keep a check on where your head is at, especially when things are not going according to plan. Sadly, ours is a society that is still prejudicial towards mental health issues. Despite all the progress we have made over the years in increasing awareness about the merits of psychotherapy, there is still a considerable amount of stigma associated with seeking therapy or counselling even for day-to-day issues such as stress, let alone more serious conditions. To everyone out there who thinks they can benefit from talking to someone, an expert who will know and understand your struggle and who will not judge you, there is no shame in admitting you need help. Not all of us are fortunate enough to have the strength, courage and resilience to go through life; some might need just a little push.

Life is a sinusoidal curve. The thought that every stressful day, week or even a year will be followed by a rewarding, successful phase, keeps me going. A friend who recently started her PhD asked me how, after about 8 years of doing research, I still manage to keep myself motivated? I really didn’t know how to answer that question. Obviously, there is not one trick. There is the hope that good will follow, just as it preceded the bad; that there will be disappointments but success too. That life will teach you things you never knew you had to learn, but those very same things will make you a better and a stronger person. But if telling yourself all of that doesn’t work, remember that if you don’t lose your grip on life, time will heal just about anything. And if that reassurance doesn’t help either, there is always beer to drown your sorrows. Nothing wrong with that if you remember to wake up the next morning with a smile on your face ready to tackle all adversities, remind yourself that be what may, you are way more fortunate than so many others in this world, feel grateful for everything that’s going right in your life than mourn over everything that isn’t, and tell yourself, however hard this struggle, that you are going through right now, might seem, like every other good or bad experience, this too shall pass.

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